The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides, in part, that citizens have the right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures. Courts have interpreted the Fourth Amendment to mean that law enforcement officials usually cannot search a person or premises without probable cause. Police officers usually need a search warrant to enter a private location for the purpose of a search or a seizure. When an officer stops someone, he or she only needs to have a reasonable suspicion that the person is carrying weapons or contraband in order to perform a limited patdown or frisk of the person. “Probable cause” is a standard that requires a greater degree of suspicion than does “reasonable suspicion.”

United States Supreme Court holds detection dog’s sniffs not searches

In 1983, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a “sniff” by a drug detection dog did not constitute a search of luggage. Specifically, the Supreme Court held that the dog’s sniff of a closed suitcase at an airport revealed only that the suitcase contained contraband. Seventeen years later, the Supreme Court would reiterate this principle in a case involving a traffic stop of an automobile. In each case, the sniff revealed drugs. And, in each case, the Supreme Court decided to suppress the evidence. In the earlier case, the Supreme Court found that the suitcase had been detained for too long before the detection dog performed the sniff. In the later case, the Supreme Court found that the initial stop of the automobile at a “narcotics interdiction” roadblock was illegal.

Supreme Court will decide if drug detection dog sniff requires reasonable suspicion

In 2004, the Supreme Court surprised some court watchers when it agreed to hear a case involving a question of whether the Fourth Amendment requires reasonable, articulable suspicion to justify the use of a drug detection dog to sniff an automobile during a legitimate traffic stop.

The Supreme Court has been asked to decide whether the use of the detection dog was an invasion of privacy for which the police needed a specific justification. Civil rights advocates worry that the Supreme Court may hold that such sniffs are merely a law enforcement tool that is no more intrusive than the detection dogs that routinely perform sniffs at airports. Civil rights advocates say that if the Supreme Court rules as such, police will be able to conduct dog searches of people who have given the police no reason to suspect illegal activity.

When hearing arguments in the case, one Justice seemed to be troubled by an increased use of detection dogs. Another Justice said that police could take a dog to a front door, ring the bell, and see what happens. Several Justices seemed reluctant to restrain police activities. Pointing out that police officers could themselves sniff for contraband during traffic stops, one Justice seemed to find no reason to prohibit sniffs by detection dogs.

The Supreme Court will issue its much-anticipated opinion later in the term.

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